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What is truth? A Johannine theological epistemology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 May 2021

Matthew Andrew*
Morling College, Sydney, Australia
*Corresponding author. Email:


This essay begins with Pilate's question – ‘What is truth?’ – and notes the way it sets us up to long for a second-person experience of Jesus. I argue that this longing is met in the literary function of the Beloved Disciple, which prepares us for our own second-person encounter with Jesus. This raises some puzzles: can the Spirit convey to us a second-person encounter with Jesus? How do we know we have been so addressed by Jesus? Given John's above/below dualism, what does such an encounter mean for our theological language? I answer these questions in turn.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 Though I start with the same text as Francis Bacon, my concern is very different.

2 This dismissive attitude would have been compounded by resentment at the way Jesus has put him in the dock. Beasley-Murray, George R., John, 2nd edn (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1999), p. 332Google Scholar.

3 This is driven home for all the players in Jesus' execution by the absence of any kind of theatrical suffering on Jesus' part. We know that the things being done to him are horrible, but we never get the sense that Jesus is in anything less than full control. On the difference of the Johannine passion narrative from the Synoptics, see Culpepper, R. Alan, ‘The Theology of the Johannine Passion Narrative: John 19:16b–30’, Neotestamentica 31/1 (1997), p. 21Google Scholar.

4 Both are epistemic problems. The ‘enlightenment’ of φωτίζɛι in John 1:9 is clearly epistemic, and the juxtaposition of flesh and spirit whereby the one of spirit is born ἄνωθɛν gives the one so born access to heavenly things (John 3:12). Sandnes, Karl Olav, ‘Whence and Whither a Narrative Perspective on Birth Ἄνωθɛν (John 3:3–8)’, Biblica 86/2 (2005), p. 156Google Scholar. See also Bennema, Cornelis, ‘Christ, the Spirit and the Knowledge of God: A Study in Johannine Epistemology’, in Healy, Mary and Parry, Robin (eds), The Bible and Epistemology: Biblical Soundings on the Knowledge of God (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007), pp. 110–12Google Scholar.

5 Whether the οὕτως … ὥστɛ construction refers to infinite degree, or the lifting up of the Son of man, the salvific death of the Son is in view in specifying this love. See Gundry, Robert H. and Howell, Russell W., ‘The Sense and Syntax of John 3:14–17 with Special Reference to the Use of Ὅυτως … Ὥστɛ in John 3:16’, Novum Testamentum 41/1 (1999)Google Scholar. We do have to say that, though Pilate is loved, his rejection of the truth and sin is part of the mechanism by which God's love for the world is demonstrated.

6 Eleonore Stump calls this Franciscan knowledge of persons. It is worth noting that she argues, by way of example, that God's special presence in the eucharist offers us Franciscan knowledge of God. I will argue that such a presence is available to us via a ‘Spirited’ reading of John's Gospel. See Stump, Eleonore, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (Oxford: OUP, 2010), pp. 51–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

7 In Stump's version Mary is locked in a room, having never had second-person interaction with another human being. She studies and learns all true propositions about people and their communication. In the process she learns all true propositions about her mother, including about her interior life. But one day she is rescued and united with her mother. Does she not learn something new in the process? Ibid., p. 52.

8 David Redelings notes the importance of ‘knowledge-of’ in John's Gospel in Redelings, David A., The Epistemological Basis for Belief According to John's Gospel: Miracles and Message in their Essentials as Nonfiction Ground for the Knowledge of God (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2011), p. 22Google Scholar.

9 Bultmann, Rudolf, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, trans. Beasley-Murray, G. R. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1971), p. 663Google Scholar.

10 Brown, Sherri, ‘What is Truth? Jesus, Pilate, and the Staging of the Dialogue of the Cross in John 18:28–19:16a’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 77/1 (2015), p. 86Google Scholar.

11 Stump's argument that stories make ‘it possible, to one degree or another, for a reader or listener to simulate what it would have been like for her if she had been a bystander in the second-person experience revealed in the story’ is an important one, and one I will be returning to in a pneumatological context. But what I am foregrounding here is the way in which this is not like having a second-person experience of Jesus. Stump, Eleonore, ‘Second-Person Accounts and the Problem of Evil’, Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia 57/4 (2001), p. 755Google Scholar.

12 Charlesworth, James Hamilton, The Beloved Disciple: Whose Witness Validates the Gospel of John? (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1995)Google Scholar.

13 Attridge, Harold W., History, Theology, and Narrative Rhetoric in the Fourth Gospel (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 2019), p. 46Google Scholar. It is also clear that the figure is identical with the disciple mentioned in John 21:22; see ch. 3 of Bauckham, Richard, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007)Google Scholar.

14 Attridge, History, Theology, Narrative Rhetoric, pp. 65–6.

15 Lee, Dorothy A., ‘Partnership in Easter Faith: The Role of Mary Magdalene and Thomas in John 20’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 17/58 (1995), p. 39CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

16 O'Brien, Kelli S., ‘Written That You May Believe: John 20 and Narrative Rhetoric’, Catholic Biblical Quarterly 67/2 (2005), p. 297Google Scholar.

17 The difficulty generated by this verse means some textual witnesses place it after verse 11, and some change the pronoun to ‘he’. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John XIII–XXI (New York: Doubleday, 1970), pp. 987–8Google Scholar.

18 O'Brien, ‘Written that you May Believe’, p. 297.

19 Ibid., p. 299.

20 Ibid., p. 300.

22 Bauckham, Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, p. 83. A similar response is possible to Bauckham's identification of the superiority of Peter's call. See Bauckham, Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, ch. 3.

23 Forger, Deborah, ‘Jesus as God's Word(s): Aurality, Epistemology and Embodiment in the Gospel of John’, Journal for the Study of the New Testament 42/3 (2020), p. 276CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24 Cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Thelogicae (hereafter ST), 1.29.1;

25 Hendrikus Berkhof, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (London: Epworth Press, 1965), p. 10.

26 Stump, ‘Second-Person Accounts and the Problem of Evil’, p. 755.

27 Bultmann, reflecting on John 16:13, uses the language of Jesus’ words spoken by the Spirit as ‘efficacious’. If this is understood as argued below – that it convicts the world of the truth of the words – this is true enough. But the mechanism by which this conviction happens is the presence of the Logos – and not merely his words – in the speech of the Spirit. Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, p. 575.

28 And the Word as ground of the new creation that the Spirit proclaims, calls forth the image of Gen 2:7. Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII–XXI, p. 1037.

29 Aquinas, ST

30 Moltmann, Jürgen, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, trans. Kohl, Margaret (London: SCM Press, 1981), p. 186Google Scholar.

31 To use inappropriate creaturely language, the Spirit may be thought of as material cause of the Son, and the Son as formal cause of the Spirit, while the Father is efficient cause of both. Speaking more properly, I would simply use the modified taxis described next that affirms common spiration and common filiation.

32 Boff argues for the spirituque, though it is not because of the Johannine notion of Spirit speaking Logos. See Boff, Leonardo, Trinity and Society (Tunbridge Wells: Burns & Oates, 1988), p. 205Google Scholar.

33 Golitzin, Alexander, ‘Adam, Eve, and Seth: Pneumatological Reflections on an Unusual Image in Gregory of Nazianzus's “Fifth Theological Oration”’, Anglican Theological Review 83/3 (2001)Google Scholar. Golitzin follows Boris Bobrinskoy and Dumitru Staniloae in this regard.

34 See Aquinas, ST

35 Jesus is given authority to execute judgement (John 5:27), but it is clear that the setting in which this authority is used is for those who do not believe his message.

36 See Bassler, Jouette M., ‘Mixed Signals: Nicodemus in the Fourth Gospel’, Journal of Biblical Literature 108/4 (1989), pp. 635–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 There are implications here concerning the Christian presentation of the truth without any form of coercion. For an articulation of apologetics in this direction see Stackhouse, John G., Humble Apologetics (New York: OUP, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 As Lee writes: ‘It is clear that in this gospel, truth is not merely a matter of intellectual concepts but involves also a mode of behavior and relationships toward God and within the new community.’ Lee, Howard Clark, ‘Knowing the Truth: Epistemology and Community in the Fourth Gospel’, in Aune, David Edward, Seland, Torrey and Ulrichsen, Jarl Henning (eds), Neotestamentica et Philonica (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p. 255Google Scholar.

39 Voluntas naturaliter est a coactione libera. Thomas Aquinas, Quaesitiones Disputatae De Veritate, 15.3.C;

40 Necessarium sit ei hoc eligere, si hoc bonum debeat consequi, vel si hoc malum debeat evitare. Ibid.

41 Even if Bultmann is correct that this is an indirect question about salvation, the questioner is still confronted with the conditional necessity that Jesus' message presents, backed up by ‘these signs’. See Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, pp. 133–4.

42 Hogg's argument regarding Nathaniel's faith that there is ‘the absence of any sign of the sort narrated elsewhere in the Gospel’ is too restrictive an understanding of signs. For it is precisely Jesus' demonstration of his knowledge of Nathaniel that occasions Nathaniel's belief. Murray Hogg, ‘The Knowledge of God: John's Gospel and Contemporary Epistemology’ (Master's thesis, Australian College of Theology, 2011), pp. 60–1.

43 Attridge makes a parallel claim about the working of the signs themselves: ‘The evangelist wants his readers to know Jesus and the liberating Truth that he brings, but the narrative he creates assumes that coming to that knowledge can be a process that first involves an encounter with the unknown, the uncertain, an encounter that may baffle but also enthrals. Like Paul's appeal to an inscription “to the unknown god” as a pedagogic device, it is worth noting that John too plays on the unknown as a step on the way to the Truth.’ Attridge, Harold W., ‘Ambiguous Signs, an Anonymous Character, Unanswerable Riddles: The Role of the Unknown in Johannine Epistemology’, New Testament Studies 65 (2019), p. 288CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Bennema makes a similar claim regarding the necessity of partial knowledge before coming to belief in Bennema, ‘Christ, the Spirit and the Knowledge of God’, p. 123.

44 This is one of the most difficult passages in John's Gospel. The key point for my purposes is what ‘prove’ is doing. As Carson notes, there are options here: ‘Does the Paraclete … prove to the world that it is wrong, or prove to believers that the world is wrong?’ I agree with Carson's that the Spirit's action is upon the world. I would suggest, however, that his criticism that Schnackenberg's rendering of ἐλέγχɛιν πɛρί as proving the world wrong about certain ideas is ‘too coldly cerebral’ does not take account of the convertibility of truth with goodness. Given the predominance of the theme of truth in the Gospel, I would therefore follow Schnackenberg's rendering. Carson, D. A., ‘The Function of the Paraclete in John 16:7–11’, Journal of Biblical Literature 98/4 (1979), pp. 547–66CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

45 On the way this picks up on the important ‘sight’ language in John, see Lee, Dorothy, ‘The Gospel of John and the Five Senses’, Journal of Biblical Literature 129/1 (2010), pp. 119–20CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Lee does not, however, pick up on the way that John's Gospel presumes that the Logos himself can be spoken by the Spirit in her discussion of hearing.

46 If John 4:48 is a criticism, it is clear that Jesus still ensures that the needed signs are provided. There is no angry denouncement of the generation for seeking signs. One can concede Bultmann's thesis that signs and words are both prone to misunderstanding, but hold that they are efficacious when present together. Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, vol. 2 (New York: Scribner, 1955), pp. 59–60.

47 Using ‘dualism’ loosely. See the discussion in Barton, Stephen C., ‘Johannine Dualism and Contemporary Pluralism’, in Bauckham, Richard and Mosser, Carl (eds), The Gospel of John and Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 712Google Scholar.

48 Though it should be noted that believers still have experiences where the words of scripture have a special liveness and applicability to them.

49 Love, rather than knowledge, is to be the dominant characterisation of Christian theology, against Aquinas's claims in ST 1.1.4.

50 Barth's emphasis on word as event is important, though I would disagree that this quickening of the Spirit happens only in proclamation, and that it happens only with special revelation. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/I, trans. G. W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1975), pp. 120–1.

51 See part II of Maritain, Jacques, The Degrees of Knowledge, trans. Phelan, Gerald B., revised edn (Norte Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995)Google Scholar.

52 Ibid., p. 281.

53 Ibid., p. 359.

54 Jensen, Steven J., The Human Person: A Beginner's Thomistic Psychology (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2018), p. 4CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

55 Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on I Corinthians, 3.2.154.

56 Ibid., 3.2.157.

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